Tupac Amaru Shakur, a.k.a., Lesane Parish Crooks
Rapper and actor
Born June 16th 1971 in New York City, New York, died September 13th 1996 in Las Vegas, Nevada
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “thug” as “a brutal ruffian or assassin.”
Poet, actor and hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur was a self-described thug, but he chose a different definition. To him, being a thug meant being the underdog. It meant coming up from the bottom. With a bandana tied around his head, flashy jewelry hanging from his neck, an untouchable charisma and tattoos covering his body, Shakur was in many ways the blueprint for the modern rapper.
He was blessed with a staccato flow that painted vivid pictures of the ‘hood and all its ills. One song might be poignant, heartfelt and loaded with raw emotion. The very next might be a sexualized club banger or even a violent threat to his rivals.
Shakur, also known by his stage names 2Pac and, later in his career, Makaveli, was full of such contradictions, ever ready – perhaps even eager – to show the world his flaws. And to make the world acknowledge its own.
His father, Billy Garland and his mother, Afeni Shakur, were both members of the Black Panthers. Afeni was incarcerated while pregnant with Tupac, facing a potential 300 year prison sentence. She represented herself in court and was acquitted of conspiring to carry out bombings in New York City. Her son was born a month after her release. Afeni named him Lesane Parish Crooks, but changed his name less than a year later to Tupac Amaru Shakur.
Tupac Amaru was a 16th century Incan warrior chief who was killed by the Spanish and whose name meant, “shining serpent.” “Shakur” is Arabic for “thankful to God.”
As a child, Shakur was surrounded by his mother’s black nationalist politics. His godfather was the Black Panther leader Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt.
At 12, Shakur was enrolled in Harlem’s 127th St. Repertory Ensemble where he was introduced to the performing arts. He was cast as the role of Travis Younger in the play, A Raisin in the Sun, which was performed at the famed Apollo theatre.
By the time he was 15, his mother had moved Shakur and a younger sister to Baltimore. There, he furthered his studies in acting and also learned poetry, jazz and ballet. It was also there that Shakur began to win local rap contests and to discover a love for hip-hop.
Poverty-stricken and fearing for her children’s safety on the violent streets of Baltimore, Afeni moved her family again, this time to Marin City, a few miles north of San Francisco. It didn’t take the Shakurs long to discover they had merely traded one blighted neighborhood for another. Afeni became addicted to crack cocaine, which strained the relationship between mother and son. Tupac dropped out of high school and took to “hustling” to earn money. He also pursued a career in hip-hop.
In 1989 Tupac began taking a poetry workshop in the Oakland area. Leila Steinberg, the organizer of the workshops, would go on to become Tupac’s first manager. Homeless and in need of help to launch his career, Tupac eventually moved in with her. Within a year she managed to connect him with producer, Atron Gregory and Tupac joined the platinum-selling rap group, Digital Underground, making his debut on Same Song, from the 1991 movie soundtrack, Nothing But Trouble. At the same time, he began work on his own debut album and signed with fledgling Interscope records.
Shakur’s debut album, 2Pacalypse Now, was released in November of 1991. It garnered critical acclaim and produced the hit singles Brenda’s Got a Baby, and Trapped. But the album also brought controversy, as a teenager claimed lyrics from one of its songs prompted him to kill a law enforcement officer. Vice President Dan Quayle called, unsuccessfully, for the album to be pulled from stores.
Shakur made his major motion picture debut as a lead actor in the 1992 film, Juice. He played a sociopathic killer named Bishop, who betrays his circle f friends. The movie received lukewarm reviews but on one thing, the critics all agreed: Shakur was a magnetic presence and strong actor.
Afeni Shakur’s son was a star on the rise. But trouble followed him like a shadow.
On August 22nd 1992, Shakur attended a festival celebrating Marin City’s rich African American history. As he signed autographs, a group of men approached, reportedly shouting insults. A fight ensued.
In the chaos, a 6-year old child named Qa’id Walker Teal was shot and killed. Ballistics test matched the fatal bullet to a gun owned by Shakur. Although he was arrested for the shooting, no one was ever convicted.
Later that same year, while in Houston, Shakur got a new tattoo that would prove iconic, the words “THUG LIFE” tattooed across his abdomen. He said was an acronym: The Hate U Give Little Infants F____ Everyone. He said “thug life” was a code of conduct for those involved in the street or criminal lifestyle that would improve and ultimately strengthen the black community.
In “thug life,” shootings at parties, car-jacking, and selling drugs to pregnant woman would not be tolerated. Shakur outlined plans to name “diplomats” from rival gangs to create peaceful resolutions to potentially deadly conflicts. Tupac proved instrumental in getting rival gangs to sign and follow Thug Life’s code of ethics.
“Thug life” would become his mantra – and epitaph.
Nineteen ninety-three would be a year of extreme highs and lows for Shakur. He saw great professional success, but much of it was overshadowed by his legal troubles. He was becoming known more for his controversies than his music.
On Feb 16th Shakur released his second album. Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. went on to sell over a million copies, boosted by the hits I Get Around and Keep Your Head Up. Shakur showcased his range as a songwriter and performer, gaining a legion of loyal fans.
That year, Shakur was invited to make a guest appearance on the sketch comedy show, In Living Color. An incident between Shakur and his entourage and a hired limo driver on the Fox Studios lot resulted in his arrest and a charge of assault, though the charge would ultimately be dropped.
A few days later, Shakur was again charged with assault and battery for his role in a fight with famed film directors, the Hughes Brothers. He would ultimately be sentenced to fifteen days in the Los Angeles County Jail, 30 hours of community service and pay a $2,000 fine.
And there was yet more trouble ahead. Shakur was sentenced to ten days in a Lansing Michigan prison in April for assaulting another rapper with a baseball bat.
Yet in that same tumultuous year, Shakur showcased a softer and more accessible side of himself, appearing onscreen opposite pop megastar, Janet Jackson in the movie Poetic Justice, which would become a cult classic. His role as a single father and hard working postal worker was a drastic departure from his public image as a hardcore thug. Entertainment Weekly magazine raved that he even upstaged Jackson.
But trouble was still ever-present.
On October 11th 1993, Shakur got into an altercation with two off duty police officers in Atlanta. He shot both officers, but charges against him were dismissed. Witnesses said the police officers he wounded were under the influence of alcohol and that one had fired the first shot.
The following month, Tupac and three others were arrested on charges they sexually abused a 19-year old fan he met at a New York nightclub.
March of the next year saw the release of Shakur’s third feature film, Above the Rim, in which he once again played the villain. The soundtrack was released on Los Angeles based Death Row Records and marked Shakur’s first collaboration with the powerful, but gang-affiliated rap label.
His burgeoning movie career aside, this was not a good time for Tupac Shakur. And it was about to get worse.
In November of 1994, he was ambushed by gunmen at a New York City recording studio. Shakur was shot five times and robbed of $40,000 worth of jewelry.
Fearing for his life, Shakur checked himself out of the hospital against doctor’s advice less than 24 hours after the surgery that saved him. The following day, Shakur appeared in court bandaged, wheelchair bound and flanked by security to answer charges for his sexual assault arrest. The rapper pleaded not guilty, but he was convicted. In February of 1995, Shakur was sentenced to one and a half to four years in prison.
Exactly one month later Shakur’s fourth studio album was released. Me Against the World debuted at #1 on the charts and stayed there for four weeks. It spun off the hit singles Dear Mama, Temptations, and So Many Tears. The album is regarded by fans and critics as Shakur’s magnum opus, one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time.
In a Vibe magazine interview, Shakur indicated that he felt fellow rap artist the Notorious B.I.G and music producer Sean Combs knew that he would be ambushed and shot. His allegations added fuel to an already intense rivalry between Los Angeles based, Death Row Records and New York based Bad Boy Records, home of Notorious B.I.G. Shakur had previously considered B.I.G a professional friend and protégé. The shooting ended that relationship and launched a deadly feud.
In April of 1995 Shakur married Keisha Morris, a college student he’d been dating on and off since June the previous year in New York City. They were wed at the prison chapel in a civil ceremony. Although the marriage was annulled after only ten months, the two remained close friends.
While Tupac languished in prison, Death Row continued to thrive, riding a wave of popularity generated by rap superstars Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. But in Shakur, Suge Knight saw a megastar who might take his $500 million dollar empire to new levels. On October 19th of 1995, Knight paid $1.5 million dollars to bail Shakur out of prison pending an appeal.
Shakur emerged rejuvenated. He worked at a feverish pace, entering the most prolific period of his career, crafting hundreds of songs and a half dozen videos in a ten month time frame. He starred alongside Mickey Rourke in the crime drama, Bullet as a drug lord named “Tank.”
Shakur also formed a rap group out of his younger family members and childhood friends and called it the Outlaw Immortalz. He made it a point to name each member of the group after a tyrant or dictator who was an enemy of the United States. He bestowed the name “Makaveli” upon himself after Niccolò Machiavelli, the 15th century Italian philosopher and politician whose name became an adjective for cunning and duplicity.
On Feb 13, 1996, Shakur made his Death Row Records debut with All Eyez On Me. The critically acclaimed set was the first double- disc album in hip-hop history; it contained almost 30 songs. Tracks like California Love, I Ain’t Mad At Cha,” and 2 of Americaz Most Wanted dominated the Billboard charts and helped make Eyez Shakur’s most commercially successful album.
And then there was Hit Em Up, the B-side single to California Love, a scathing, brutal dis song aimed at the Notorious B.I.G and Bad Boy Records. In addition to insults and death threats, Shakur also claimed to have had sex with B.I.G’s wife, Faith Evans. Hit Em Up is regarded as one of the most infamous dis songs ever released.
Shakur’s turbulent life came to an abrupt end on September 7, 1996.
He had attended a Mike Tyson fight with Knight and the Death Row entourage. Shortly after the fight, Shakur spotted a member of a rival gang in the lobby of the MGM Grand hotel and lead a savage attack on him.
Hours later, he was on the Las Vegas strip, sitting in the passenger seat of a BMW driven by Knight, when a white Cadillac pulled alongside and fired nine gunshots into their car. Shakur was hit four times.
Officer Chris Caroll, of the Las Vegas Police Department was the first responder. He reported that when he asked the dying rapper who had shot him, Shakur answered, “F___ you.” Those would be his last words.
Tupac Shakur succumbed to his wounds six days later. He was 25 years old.
But in death, he would become a bigger star than ever. Less than two months after his murder, Death Row Records released Shakur’s fifth album, Makaveli The Don Killumanti: The 7 Day Theory. It debuted at number one on the Billboard charts, selling more than half a million copies its first week and was quickly certified platinum, powered by the hit singles Toss it Up, Hail Mary, and 2 Live or Die in LA.
Since his death Tupac Shakur has become an international icon. He has sold over 80 million records and is regarded by many as the greatest rapper to ever live. In 2017 Shakur was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Sources: Vibe Magazine, XXL Magazine, LATimes.com, NYTimes.com, Baltimore Sun, Rolling Stone, Killing 2Pac by Cathy Scott, Murder Rap by Detective Greg Kading, Tupac Resurrection (film), Tupac Shakur’s 1996 Vibe 1996 interview, Mutulushakur.com, Allhiphop.com